Remembering the Game Boy Advance SP’s edgy marketing

Remembering the Game Boy Advance SP's edgy marketing

The Game Boy Advance SP was groundbreaking in many ways. It featured a front-lit display (later changed to backlit) which has since become standard, and a highly portable clamshell design which paved the way for the Nintendo DS. But its marketing here in the UK now looks more than a little more dated.

Originally released in Japan 20 years ago today and then here in Europe on March 28, there’s no doubt the SP was a stylishly designed piece of kit. The original Game Boy Advance was fairly compact, but also couldn’t escape the look of a toy – something a child might try to pop a Digimon out of during a particularly high-energy gaming session.

The SP, on the other hand, was intended to appear as a more grown-up device and was therefore marketed as such. Its colors were more subdued – its all-silver option made its hinged design look like a small laptop. Its angular shape was more professional (and its little shoulder buttons rather less ergonomic to hold down). But it all made sense – didn’t it? Nintendo already had a successful Game Boy Advance for the youth market. This one was aimed at a different, more targeted demographic – something its advertising also reflected.

The Game Boy Advance SP – “For men”.

As a sort of aftershave, Nintendo marketed the SP here in Europe as a “men’s” device, with an advertising campaign widely featured in the various British magazines of the time. The handheld’s most memorable advertisement featured the boast that playing the GBA SP was “the second best thing to do in the dark”, highlighting the device’s backlit display – but also that even Nintendo doesn’t didn’t think playing Mario was as good as sex.

The ad included a moody monochrome photo of a model-looking couple posing topless under silk sheets. The man is depicted holding the SP and playing whatever is on its backlit screen, while the woman lies beside him. I still can’t tell if she was supposed to watch the game too or if she just fell asleep.

Game Boy Advance SP

The “Tribal” edition of the Game Boy Advance SP.

Nintendo ditched its “men’s” brand for the infamous “Tribal” variant of the Game Boy Advance SP, a design that seemed pitched as an awkward halfway house between the SP’s original ad – aimed at excited young office workers who had Game Boys as children – and a younger demographic of teenagers who listened to Fall Out Boy. This ad featured another topless model – albeit in a less suggestive pose – and highlighted games such as F-Zero, Max Payne and Splinter Cell, rather than Mario or Zelda: Minish Cap.

All of that isn’t to say that the SP was the only time Nintendo got excited over the main. The arrival of the Nintendo DS and its touchscreen gave the company a seemingly irresistible opportunity to step up a gear. Here in the UK, Nintendo advertising sponsored Channel 4 comedy shows with short adverts that made it look like a man was about to get a handjob. The slogan “Touch It” was used here, a more adult version of the phrase “Touching is good” seen in other advertisements. It’s really, really crazy now.

Nintendo UK’s “Touch It” advertisement.

This ad at least features the woman in a more active role and ostensibly playing a game – what appears to be Metroid Prime: Hunters – albeit upside down and wearing a latex glove. Although designed for viewing after the 9 p.m. turnaround, it seems unlikely that Nintendo will launch a similar advertising campaign today.

Anyway, Happy 20th Anniversary Game Boy Advance SP. You are now finally out of your teenage years – and not a minute too soon.

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